(Editor’s note: This column originally ran in The Detroit news on on Feb. 6, 2012.)
Detroit — When you hear Dick Groch talk about Derek Jeter as if he were his own son, there's a reason. Jeter is merely the most famous of his children, and Groch, 71, of St. Clair, still has the scouting reports to prove it.
It was 20 years ago Friday the Yankees selected Jeter with the sixth overall pick in the draft. And it was Groch, then a Michigan-based regional scout for the team, who lobbied hard for the Yankees to pick the Kalamazoo Central High senior.
"You compare the draft to the birth of a child," said Groch, now a special assistant in pro scouting for the Brewers. "It's exciting. This is the child you wanted. And now you get to watch it grow. I think that's the most exciting part of it."
Twenty years later, Groch (pronounced "Groach") still gets excited as he watches Jeter's legend grow as the revered captain of baseball's most storied franchise. But not nearly as excited as he was the first time he saw Jeter attending a summer camp at Mount Morris High.
Jeter, in town with the Yankees to face the Tigers this weekend, doesn't remember that day. But Groch sure does.
As a shortstop, the 6-foot-2, 160-pounder already was playing a premium position. But watching him play it — "A lean, wiry, lithe body with just lightning movements," Groch recalls — was something else. Groch, a former St. Clair County Community College coach, wondered about that inside-out swing, like others did. But he could hardly ignore the great range, acrobatic jump throws to first and footwork as he turned double plays.
"I mean, those were things that just took your breath away," he said. "You know it when you see it and literally it does. You start to hyperventilate. You're seeing something special."
Others saw it, too, certainly. Groch chuckles as he recalls telling a Michigan State assistant that day to save the postage on a recruiting letter.
He 'reeked professionalism'
But no one could've known then just how special a player Jeter would become: A five-time World Series champion, 12-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner and the Yankees career leader in hits and games played. In short, Jeter, who'll turn 38 this month, is a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he retires.
Which, come to think of it, is what Groch essentially predicted 20 years ago when pressed by the Yankees brass about Jeter's talent and his intentions. One of the primary concerns about Jeter heading into the 1992 draft was whether he'd opt for a scholarship from Michigan instead of turning pro out of high school.
"I'd never seen a player better than this in my life," said Groch, who'd been a scout for more than a decade. "But the other question was, 'Is this kid going to Michigan?' And I said, 'No, the only place he's going is Cooperstown.' I said, 'I can't be any more definitive than that.'"
Why was he so sure?
"It was the way he went about games, the way he conducted himself at that age," said Groch, who was a special guest at Yankee Stadium last July for Jeter's 3,000th hit. "He was a 17-year-old kid who just reeked professionalism. There was something special about his carriage that you knew that you had someone with the intangibles and the ceiling that few had."
Of course, there were a few other hurdles to clear, not the least of which were the teams drafting ahead of the Yankees.
The Astros had the No. 1 pick, and their scout, Hal Newhouser — yes, Prince Hal — was touting Jeter. But much to Newhouser's chagrin — he retired after that draft — the club decided the price for Jeter's signing bonus would be too high. So Houston selected Fullerton State third baseman Phil Nevin, who went on to play for six teams in 12 seasons and now is manager of the Toledo Mud Hens.
The rest of the top five also were college players: pitchers Paul Shuey (Cleveland) and BJ Wallace (Montreal), and outfielders Jeffrey Hammonds (Baltimore) and Chad Mottola (Cincinnati). Safer picks, in theory. Cheaper, too, in a few cases. But of those four, only Nevin and Hammonds played in an All-Star Game. Mottola played 1,801 games — in the minor leagues. And when veteran Reds scout Gene Bennett, who'd given Jeter glowing reviews, heard about the Mottola pick, he thought it was a joke.
Like most scouts, Groch knows the feeling. Ironically, his biggest near-miss was 10 years ago, when the Reds grabbed Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, while he and part-time Yankees scout Richie Clemens sat in Votto's living room.
"We sat there, and when they announced the pick, we just sort of forgot about the rest of the day," said Groch, whose territory covered Michigan, Ohio and Canada. "That's how it goes. The scout gets credit for the one that signs and gets to the big leagues. But they don't get credit for how hard they work to come up short, because of the nature of the draft."
Jeter, for his part, was dumbstruck when the Yankees called. He assumed he'd be drafted by the Astros or Reds.
"I didn't even know when the Yankees picked," said Jeter, who'd dreamed of playing in pinstripes.
He never got the sense during that cold, wet spring the Yankees were scouting him all that closely, he said Friday, partly because one of his teammates, Matt Terrell, had been drafted by the Yankees in 1990.
"Mr. Groch was coming out to see him play," said Jeter, who eventually signed for $800,000, only $100,000 more than Nevin. "I was a Yankee fan, so I just remember saying, 'Oh, man, that's the Yankees scout.' But after that, he sort of kept his distance. Most of the other teams, I was aware of, but not the Yankees."
Thanks to Groch, though, the Yankees were fully aware of Jeter — and his potential.